Lawsuit alleges racial harassment

  • A Hawaiian Airlines employee discovered a noose and lynching rope on a locker near his after experiencing unrelenting harassment, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court in December 2017. Courtesy of Elizabeth Fujiwara, attorney for plaintiff)

  • Passengers check in at Hawaiian Airlines at Kona International Airport. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — A Hawaiian Airlines employee stationed at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport filed a lawsuit citing racial harassment and discrimination after discovering a noose and lynch rope near his locker.

Despite the complaint, Tim Degrate, an African-American man, continues to work as a lead line service supervisor for the airline. Since the filing in December 2017, his attorney, Elizabeth Fujiwara, said her client has felt a lot of pressure at Hawaiian Airlines.

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“There’s fear going to work every day,” she said. “He doesn’t feel supported.”

Fujiwara filed the complaint in the Honolulu federal court. It outlines a history of harassment and disparate treatment because of Degrate’s race. While he experienced issues at Hawaiian Airlines when he started nearly 18 years ago, Fujiwara said, the harassment intensified starting in May 2014.

According to the lawsuit, Degrate endured harassment such as name calling, false internal complaints made against him, hostility from supervisors and scrutiny of his work. While he’s complained to management in the past, things came to a head on Aug. 29, 2016, when the 58-year-old discovered a lynching rope and noose on the work locker next to his.

“He was absolutely terrified, thinking that someone wants to hang him; because that’s exactly what it means for black people when they see a noose: ‘you’re going to be hung,’” the complaint states.

Hawaiian Airlines did conduct an investigation into the incident at the time. According to the complaint, results from that investigation were completed on March 13, 2017. The lawsuit indicates that Aiona Wilson, from the airline’s Human Resources department, contacted Degrate with the findings.

Degrate’s allegation regarding the hanging of a noose on the line service lockers was substantiated.

“However, your allegation that the noose was hung to threaten and/or harass you was not substantiated,” Wilson told Degrate, according to the complaint.

Hawaiian Airlines denied allegations of workplace violence but said that the company has taken action to improve communications among its Kona team.

“We are sorry that Mr. Degrate felt disrespected in any way,” the company said Wednesday in a statement. “An independent investigation of Mr. Degrate’s allegations was unable to verify actions by specific individuals as described by Mr. Degrate, and we vigorously deny all allegations of workplace violence. Having said that, because Hawaiian Airlines is committed to maintaining a fair and safe work environment we have taken additional efforts to improve workplace interaction at our Kona station, including mandatory staff-wide training on communicating and interacting with respect.”

Fujiwara said the ordeal has “basically destroyed” Degrate’s life. In filing the lawsuit, the 58-year-old would like to have peace again, and of course money to compensate attorney fees.

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“In Hawaii we expect better, and unfortunately that’s not always true,” Fujiwara said. “I think it’s appalling that Hawaiian Airlines uses ‘aloha’ in their marketing and they’ve allowed this to go on.”

Hawaiian Airlines has 30 days to respond to the complaint. Fujiwara also filed a production of documents including the lynching rope.

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